1902 Encyclopedia > Divination


DIVINATION. This term is used to mean the obtaining knowledge of secret or future things by revelation from oracles or omens. The derivation of the word points to divine influence communicated through the soothsayer, much as the equivalent Greek term mantike refers to the utterances of the spiritually inspired or possessed seer, mantis. It is well seen from Cicero’s treatise De Divinatione that in classic times theology not only included in its system all revelation by oracles, which clearly belongs to it, but also claimed possession of a variety of divined arts, such as augury and astrology, on the ground that their signs were sent by the gods. On the side of the Stoics, it is there argued that if divination is a real art, then there must be gods who gave it to mankind, which proposition is met by the counter-suggestions that signs of future events may be given by nature without any god, or that there may be gods and yet they not have bestowed on man any such art as divination. The real point of the relation of divination to religion is touched in the division of it into two kinds,—artificial divination, by haruspication, prodigies, lightning, augury, astrology, and lots, as contrasted with natural divination, by dreams and prophetic oracles. On a general survey of such arts among mankind, it appears that oracles, &c being taken as revelations made directly by spiritual beings fall to be considered under headings treating of religion (see, e.g., DEMONOLOGY); but divining by such signs as the flight of birds or the falling of lots does not necessarily depend on the notion of intervening demons or deities. One part of its position is well stated in the argument by which Cicero makes his Stoic defend it:—If frogs by croaking, and oxen by snuffing the air, can give us signs to fore-tell the weather, why should there not be omens in the fibres of a victim’s entrails, or in thunderstorms? But the religious view which regards omens as divine signs seems to have been from very early ages blended with the naturalistic view, so that in a great part of the cases it is impossible to disentangle them, or even to say which is the original one. This will appear in the following brief summary of the principal methods of divination. Now that the diviner’s art has all but perished, we moderns are able to look back upon its history, to see how its futile proceedings were suggested by mistaken analogy, and how the experience of ages, which ratifies true inferences and destroys false fancies, is now reducing them to curious antiquarian relics.

The various "artificial" modes of divination for the most part rest evidently on the association of ideas in analogy and symbolism (see evidence in Tylor, Early Hist. of Mankind, p. 132; Primitive Culture, vol. i. p. 117, &c., 78 ) A tree planted at a child’s birth, or any other plant mentally associated with a person, gives a sign by its nourishing or withering as to that person’s health or death (Ploss, Das Kind, vol. i. p. 71.) So with the sticks set up by Polynesians to see if the warriors they stand for will fall in battle, or with the cocoa-nut that is spun like a teetotum to point out a thief (Polack, New Zealanders vol. i. p. 270; Mariner’s Tonga Islands, ch. xx.) This kind of fanciful association appears in sortilege, or casting of lots a proceeding remarkable not only for its antiquity but for the frequency with which religions have adopted it as a means of obtaining divine guidance, from the ages when classic poets sang of Homeric heroes praying to the gods when they cast lots in Agamemnon’s leather cap, or of Mopsus the sooth-sayer divining with sacred lots when the Argonauts embarked on their voyage (Homer, II., vii. 175 ; Pindar, Pyth., iv. 338), and on until modern times, when the Moravians still resorted to solemn religious lots to determine difficult questions, such as the choice of wives. Dice or astragali (hucklebones) have been used for the pur poses of sortilege (see Suetonius, Tiberius); and cartomancy, or fortune-telling by means of playing-cards, is still common. In ancient times omens were drawn from poets verses, fixed on by chance, a practice well known as Sortes Virgilianae, from Virgil being often so consulted (see Smith’s Dic. Gr. and Rom. Antiq., art. "Sortes"); and the Bible came to be afterwards so used for drawing texts, or "pricking for texts;" this practice is still very usual in Germany (see Wuttke, Deutsche Volksaberglaube, 2 ed., p. 227.) The haruspication, or examination of entrails, by which Roman statesmen were (or pretended to be) guided in public affairs (see Cicero, De Div., ii. 12; Plin. H. N., xi. 73); and scapulimancy, or the Tatar mode of divining by the cracks and lines in a shoulder blade (Lubbock, Origin of Civilization, p. 230), formerly known in England as "reading the speal-bone" (Brand, Popular Antiquities,vol. iii. p. 339), depended on imaginary symbolic associations, such as that cracks in opposite directions meant good and ill fortune, that the course of particular lines indicated the course of the consulter’s life, &c. This sort of false analogy may be well understood by any one who will have the similar art of palmistry, or divining by the lines of the hand, applied to his own future by a fortune-teller at a fair. Omens obtained by augury, or divining by the sight and cries of animals, especially birds (as the name indicates), are as familiar among uncivilized races as they were in ancient Rome; their symbolism is apparent in such rules as that a hawk means victory, an owl’s hoot is unlucky, and that a beast or bird on the right hand portends good, but on the left hand evil (Tylor, P. C., vol. i. p. 119). Another class of arts depend on the unconscious or half-conscious action of some person, often the diviner himself. Among these is the use of the well-known divining rod, which when held in the hands, dips to indicate a hidden spring of water, a vein of ore, or a buried treasure (Brand, vol. iii. p. 332; see Chevreul, De la Baguette Divinatoire, &c.) The use of this instrument remains in some districts of England; it is locally known as "dowsing," whence no doubt the name of Dousterswivel in The Antiquary. Similar in principle is the ancient coscinomancy, or divining by a sieve held suspended, and giving its indications by turning. In later times this gave place to the ordeal by the Bible and key, where the book is suspended by a key tied in with its wards between the a leaves and the key supported on two persons’ forefingers, and the whole turns round to prove guilty some servant maid accused of theft (Brand, vol. iii. p. 351). In such cases, where the culprits’ fears are apt to betray them, the process of divination really serves as a practical test. Dreams are not only considered visits from ghosts, but often also as supernatural signs to be interpreted symbolically, as when a Kamtschatkan dreaming of dogs or lice would take it as foretelling a visit from Russians (Steller, Kamtschatka, p. 279). Of such interpretations the ancient art of oneiromancy consists, as may be seen in such rules as that if a woman dreams of kindling a fire, she will bear a male child; if one dreams of white clouds it means joy, but if black clouds trouble (Brand, vol. iii. p. 132; Tylor, l.c.). It remains to mention m few words astrology, the branch of divination whose importance in the world has exceeded that of all the rest together. Researches into the ancient writings of Chaldaea have now shown how fully historians were justified in treating that country as the principal among the sources whence the stargazers received their precepts (see Sayce, "Astronomy and Astrology of the Babylonians," in Trains. Soc. Bibl. Arch., vol. iii.; Maury, La Magie et l’Astrologie.) The rules in such comparatively modern works as Sibly’s Occult Sciences and Lilly’s Astrology fairly enough represent the ancient traditions, and show their still intelligible symbolism,—how the stars rising at a child’s birth are made in the horoscope to typify its destiny, and the planets and signs of the zodiac exercise "influences" often plainly drawn from their natures or names. Thus Mars has to do with soldiers, Venus with lovers, and Mercury with prattlers; the solar man is grand and generous, the lunar man unsteadfast and inclined to change his dwelling, the sign Leo presides over places where wild beasts abound, but Aries over pastures. At the courts of Asiatic rulers, the state astrologer still nominally holds a position like that of his predecessor in the ancient empires of the world, but it is evident that the last twenty years have shaken, even in the barbaric East, the power of the occult sciences over the human mind. (E. B. T.)

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